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Brigham Young, Natural Seers, and Seer Stones

By: Guest - March 03, 2011

J. Stapley needs no introduction. He’s been kind enough to join in on the seer stone/”magic” fe[a]st we’ve had here at JI this week.

Stan’s recent post on the use of seer stones by young women, reminded me of some sources relating to Brigham Young. Young is on record as saying that he was not a “natural seer” (see discussion in this post). I’m currently of the position that Brigham Young believed that he did not have the ability to use seer stones. As illustrated in comments while discussing some of his more controversial beliefs with the Salt Lake School of the Prophets, Young “said there were many revelations given to him that he did not receive from the Prophet Joseph. He did not receive them through the Urim and Thummim as Joseph did but when he did received them he knew of their truth as much as it was possible for them him to do of any truth.” [1]

I think that Young was consequently somewhat wary of divination and natural seership [2]. For example, when the First Presidency received a question about the use of seer stones from a mission president in 1911, the Secretary, George F. Gibbs wrote back, stating that he had lived in Brigham Young’s household for a time and that one of Young’s daughters had found a seer stone. She “could see persons and animals and things in it at will, and could tell the whereabouts of lost property. Brigham Young had the stone carefully kept until she would be a responsible woman.” [3]

Young’s office journal in 1860 also recorded several description of seeric objects, e.g.:

[March 17, 1860] Bro Jas. W. Cummings told the President the circumstances attending the discovery of a Seer Stone by a Danish brother; this brother informed him [that] a personage appeared to him in a dream and took him away to a cave in the mountains and shewed him the Stone; the next day he searched for the Seer Stone and found it in the same place described in the dream–he can tell where cattle are that have strayed away; usually he can see hieroglyphic characters; he made a promise that he would not show it to any body for the space of three years, which time Expires next May. Bro Jas. Cummings further observed that he had questioned often about the Stone and he always told the Same story; he looked in the stone to discover a bed of Coal and the glass presented a coal bed. [4]

This excerpt does not indicate Young’s response. However, it is clear that Young believed in the use of seer stones, and that their use was relatively common to those close to him during the Utah period. He himself didn’t use them and not long after Young’s death we see a fairly quick turn in the acceptability of seer stone usage in favor of an emphasis on priesthood hierarchy.

In recent work with Kris and in other work, I frame Mormon liturgy within a two overlapping regions: the folk and the formal. In the nineteenth century, there were no written instructions for any rituals and people learned to participate by example or by oral instruction. During this period it is very difficult to identify what formal Church practice was, because the Church leaders are engaged in the folk system just like everyone else, it being the primary pedagogy in the church. It isn’t until the reforms under the Grant administration that a clear cut codified formality is introduced across the general church.

Perhaps we can view the use of seer stones within the broader framework of the evolution of Mormon liturgy. Whereas in early Utah, all seer stone usage is “authorized” (with certain caveats, e.g., Hirum Page) as there is no real formal structure to manage it, with Young as Church President there was a growing perception that the chief hierarch and chief revelator of the Church (the individual with ultimate divinatory authority) not only didn’t use seer stones, but couldn’t use them. Consequently Brigham Young created a rift in the liturgical landscape, effectually establishing a formal and superior alternative to seer stone use. As this trend progressed, the rift only expanded with priesthood hierarchy naturally becoming the formal channel for authorized revelation. Seer stones then become clearly the realm of folk practice.

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  1. Salt School of the Prophets, Minutes, June 9, 1873, photocopy in Kenny Papers, MSS 2022 Box 10, Folder 1; typescript in Arrington Papers.
  2. See link in first paragraph. Also when James Henry Martineau asked him whether it was acceptable to engage in astrology, Young responded somewhat ambivalently but ultimately said it was fine as long as Martineau “did no hurt.” Donald G. Godfrey and Rebecca S. Martineau-McCarty, eds., An Uncommon Common Pioneer: The Journals of James Henry Martineau, 1828-1918 (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 29. Cf., Fred C. Collier, The Office Journal of President Brigham Young, 1858-1863, Book D, (Hannah: Collier’s Publishing Co., 2006), 83
  3. First Presidency Letterpress, p. 355 [no date, 43 6-6-6-6, surrounded by letters dated 1911], Abbreviated typescript, Scott Kenny Papers, Box 2, abreviations normalized.
  4. Collier, The Office Journal of President Brigham Young, 57-58. See also p. 83, May 7, 1860.


13 Comments

  1. I like your inclusion of seer stones within Mormon liturgy, as an object of liturgy; but I wouldn’t limit seer stones to liturgical use (unless you have a very broad definition of liturgy). Using a seer stone to find lost cattle seems much more pragmatic than liturgical, much more like water witching than anything dealing with divine revelation or churchly ceremony. Or, to make a modern comparison, more like those guys who go around parks with metal detectors (or Blue Stakes who come to mark water pipes). Thus, while I definitely see it overlapping with the liturgical, I think the use of seerstones is itself a broader category, or one that also overlaps on other types of usage (agricultural, communications media, etc.).
    To your point, though, J., these categories do seem to bleed over into one another quite easily. It is interesting how quickly discourse about seer stones moves from locating lost objects to angelic visitation to hieroglyphics to Q&A–any and all of which made some Priesthood leaders nervous. So maybe a very broad definition of liturgy is entirely appropriate. (I think I just argued around and against myself to the effect that I probably ended up just saying a whole lot of nothing!)

    Comment by Stan — March 3, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

  2. Excellent observations. I think the “rift” began with Joseph Smith’s own setting-aside of his seer stones, but I agree that Young continued this rift and paved the way for their elimination from Mormon practice.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — March 3, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

  3. Christopher, I’m not sure I see the same thing happening with JS. Into Nauvoo, people wanted him to use the stone(s), knew that he could, and as Bill Smith has shown, on occasion did. I think that it is something completely different when the chief hierarchy not only doesn’t, but can’t. I do believe that there was a de-emphasis during JS’s life, to be sure, though.

    Stan, I think you raise an important critique. A similar thing happens with healing. Zina Young talks about gentiles loving consecrated oil for its healing properties. Are these non-Mormons participating in the Mormon healing liturgy? What about when consecrated oil is mixed into traditional medicine recipes? That said, I have a really broad view of liturgy, one which I suspect some will disagree with.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 3, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  4. J. Stapley, others have noted the decrease in seership of this sort tended to correspond to the rise of charismatic figures others flocked to independent of the leadership. Do you think that the major issue? Or do you think there is more at work here?

    The whole issue of natural seership is interesting as well. As I recall (it’s been a while since I last looked into this) natural seership was tied to those passages in the D&C talking about “heir according to the flesh.” It’s interesting that phraseology is still relatively common in Partiarchal Blessings but I doubt many tie it to seership let alone seer stones.

    Comment by Clark — March 3, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

  5. Clark I’m not familiar enough with those the charismatic figures you mention to comment, though I do have notes from a FP letter in 1888 rebuking a bishop for consulting with a local seeress.

    I view that material in the revelations has not dealing with seeric gifts at all. Rather I believe they deal with the lineal priesthood, something that ambiguously pops up all over the revelations from early 1830s on and collapses into the temple liturgy. Sam is treating the early stuff in his adoption paper in the Summer JMH.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 3, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  6. My understanding (and as I said it’s been at least 15 years since I last looked into this) is that the linear priesthood was tied to natural seership. Which is why I mentioned in the other post about the whole issue of the Patriarch to the Church and seership.

    I don’t have my notes handy and they may have been among those destroyed in a flooded basement a few years back. I vaguely remember Quinn writing a bit on this topic though. Maybe I’m misrecalling though.

    Comment by Clark — March 3, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  7. I don’t think I would make that connection Clark, and I am pretty sure that Brigham Young didn’t make the connection in 1845 when he claimed to have lineal right the priesthood the same as JS (not that that would have bearing on earlier beliefs).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 3, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

  8. Can I get a reference for this statement “Christopher, I’m not sure I see the same thing happening with JS. Into Nauvoo, people wanted him to use the stone(s), knew that he could, and as Bill Smith has shown, on occasion did”?

    I’ve heard the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers museum has a seer stone or peep stone on display.

    Comment by Ben Johnson — March 3, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

  9. Ben: I would check out Mark Ashurst-McGee’s thesis, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet.” Mike Quinn’s book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is also commonly cited source for seer stone stuff and includes pictures, including the DUP stone as I remember.

    On Nauvoo usage, see Bill Smith’s post here.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 3, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  10. Unfortunately so many of my notes were destroyed I can’t find too much on this. However the following is from Ian Barber’s “Women as Natural Seers” in Women and Authority. I suspect it’s the source of my confusion.

    As president of the High Priesthood, Joseph Smith was “a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church.” These gifts, including that of seer, were also extended by appointment to Hyrum Smith (D&C 108:92; also 21:1; about Hyrum, see 124:94-95). Historical evidence also suggests that nonhierarchical and extra-priesthood exercise of the gift of seeing was reason for some institutional tension.5 Nevertheless, Joseph Smith taught in 1843 that the “white stone mentioned in Revelation 2:17, will become a Urim and Thummim to each individual who receives one, whereby things pertaining to a higher order of kingdoms will be made known; And a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom” (D&C 130:10-11).

    Church leaders in Utah clarified their understanding of seers. Brigham Young identified early Book of Mormon witnesses Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris as being among those “who have been natural seers and had many other remarkable gifts.”6 However, these men had fallen away, “principally because they had not sufficient humility.” Young admitted that he was not a prophet or seer as Joseph Smith had been, a comment John Taylor explained as “speaking of men being born Natural Prophets & seers.” “Many have the gift of seeing through seer stones without the Priesthood at all,” Taylor remarked.7 Another aspect of spiritual ability was the natural right to the priesthood of those in the “blood” line of scattered Israel. Early converts were considered “lawful heirs, according to the flesh … and the priesthood … must needs [169] remain through you and your lineage.” This natural right was distinguished from the culturally determined anointing and ordination of a priesthood call. Those not in the descent line had to be “designated … and found worthy, and anointed, and ordained.” (See D&C 68:15-21; 86:8-10; 87:9-10; Abraham 1:2-3, 26-27, 31; 2:9-11.) Heber C. Kimball also addressed the notion of a “natural” prophet, in connection with the rights of lineage. It is significant that he spoke of both men and women as such “Prophets & Prophetesses”: “He [Heber C. Kimball] said any man that was a prophet of God He was born a Natural Prophet. It was through a linage of Prophets. There fathers & mothers were Prophets & Prophetesses by birth through the Seed of Abraham. Theis was the case with Joseph Brigham & himself. [Their?] Fathers were prophets.”8

    The exercise of the gift of seeing in early Mormonism often involved the use of a stone (or stones) (see Mosiah 8:13; 28:13-16; Alma 37:21, 23-24; Ether 3:1, 3-4, 6, 23, 28; 4:5). However, this essay interprets the experience of a seer as a broader mystical phenomenon and considers related spiritual ministrations as well, where instruments were not necessarily involved.

    Admittedly that essay is fairly dated with all the research that’s been done the past decade or two. Rereading it after all these years he’s clearly connecting things without having a strong formal connection. Reading quickly through it it seems like he’s making a connection but he never really comes out and says it.

    I couldn’t find my copy of Quinn (which also is admittedly dated and problematic) but I’m pretty sure he discussed it there as well.

    Comment by Clark — March 3, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  11. I think John Taylor’s defense of Brigham Young’s revelatory authority in the midst of the Morrisite controversy speaks to the issues you raise, Jonathan:

    Brigham Young in saying that He did not profess to be a prophet seer & Revelator as Joseph Smith was, was speaking of men being born Natural Prophets & seers. Many have the gift of seeing through seer stones without the Priesthood at all. He had not this gift naturally yet He was an Apostle & the Presidet of the Church & kingdom of God on the Earth and all the Keys of the Holy Priesthood & of Revelation was sealed upon him & the spirit & power of Revelation was upon him daily. [WWJ, 11 Feb. 1861]

    Comment by John T. — March 3, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

  12. John T., exactly.

    Clark, I have to admit that I don’t find that article particularly persuasive.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 4, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  13. Yeah, now that I reread it I don’t either. I wonder why I did at the time?

    Comment by Clark — March 4, 2011 @ 12:01 pm